Caught and Blue Steel

Caught (1948) remains one of my favorite films. The first time I watched it, I burst out crying when Larry Quinada (James Mason) chastises Leonora Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes) for drawing a mole on her face, wearing a mink coat, and styling her hair too sophisticatedly for a receptionist in his slum medical practice. These scenes showed me definitively that Quinada is no better than Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan), an abusive narcissist who thinks of Leonora as just another piece of his property.

Although Maud changes her name to “Leonora” when she enrolls in Miss Dale’s Charm School (a hideous reminder that such institutions flourished for women, and are still with us under other names), naming her fundamentally belongs to Ohlrig and Quinada. Ohlrig sneeringly calls her “Leonora,” adopting her new name as a form of deriding her methods and dreams. Quinada calls her “Lee,” which fits with his practically-minded world view and the way women should fit into it. Maud clearly wants to divorce herself from her past and life with her mother, which her name change indicates, while at the same time living up to her mother’s—and America’s—idea of success for a woman, which is to marry a rich man who will rescue her from her subsistence-level job and from a life lived according to the attributes of her body. A former car-hop, Leonora models expensive clothing in the hope of finding a rich man. Her naivete is touching, since she conceives of her rescuer as a Prince Charming to her Cinderella. Interestingly, this part of the film mirrors the post-WW II backlash against women in the workforce, independent entrepreneurs who are generally cast doubly, as damsel in distress who masks the femme fatale beneath. These women have to be punished, in order to reinstate the masculine order that war-time jobs for women eroded. Women are tossed back into domestic life. Here, we can see this type of narrative take shape, as Maud—not yet Leonora—in the shabby apartment she shares with a roommate, dreams out loud of taking two mink coats back with her to her mother’s home, one for her and one for her mother. As she dreams of her future, she slaps a fly-swatter idly against her knee. In another film, this act would signify that she will be the femme fatale of the piece, catching her man. But it can also indicate her own status, which, through her dream, will catch her and squash her in the end. This is in fact what happens in the film, and I find it to be the stuff of tragedy.

The film’s narrative is perfectly triangulated, with Leonora in the middle between Ohlrig and Quinada. Ohlrig grew up in a rich family, but boasts that by dint of his hard work, he managed to increase his inheritance 14 times. He is a masked Howard Hughes. Hughes, at the time the owner of RKO, and a very hands-on producer who had fired Ophuls from directing Vendetta (production 1946-50) and even directed some scenes himself, reviewed Ophuls’ script for Caught, and, unpredictably, did not object to his portrait as Ohlrig. He lent out Barbara Bel Geddes anyway, demanding only that Ophuls change the manner of Ohlrig’s dress so that it wasn’t “rumpled,” and eliminate any reference to his oil interests. Thus, scenes involving oil rigs and derricks were changed to take place in warehouses. Ophuls added to Ohlrig’s character a touch of Preston Sturges, who was evidently known for abusing his wife. Quinada, on the other hand, comes from a family posing as rich. Neither of his parents worked, but always found the material accoutrements that signaled wealth. There is a scene in Ohlrig’s garage, one of the confrontations between the two men, in which they both put pressure on Leonora to choose one of them and the ridiculous life that he offers her. The men face the camera with a ladder separating them, while Maud paces in profile between them. As if that ladder poses the only escape from a situation that will be determined wholly by the men. Of course, it isn’t meant as any viable escape, just a further, darkly comic, indication of how Leonora is trapped.

The seemingly abrupt ending, in which all appears to be resolved by Leonora’s miscarriage (“Now you can have a new life,” Quniada tells her in the ambulance) and the requirements that the film have a happy ending fulfilled, twists my stomach because of Barbara Bel Geddes’ at once despairing and hopeful expression, the latter designed to please Quniada when he asks, “Do you hear me?” The last line of the film is, “I hear you,” which she utters in a near-whisper, with a fake smile plastered on her face. What comes through clearly in this scene is the erasure of her desires, and in fact, the erasure of her existence as a discrete, separate person from the fantasy worlds created by men and forced into actuality. Ohlrig and Quinada (Oil-rig and Nothing) appear to oppose each other, but in fact, reiterate each other in different keys. Quinada is the more insidious of the two, because Leonora is grateful to him for rescuing her from Ohlrig, and does not see through his benign facade, made more attractive by his altruism and apparent renunciation of material values. Yet, those material values remain, if in nothing else, then in the way he wants “Lee” to appear. Thus, Caught presents the skewed, internalized values women have to combat in post-War America.

A more contemporary film that reminds me of Caught is Kathryn Bigelow’s 1989 Blue Steel, with Jamie Lee Curtis as Megan Turner. Though Turner steps out of the world in which Leonora Eames is trapped through measuring her success by marriage, the story is fundamentally the same. Bigelow shifts the discourse of what it is to live in a man’s world to the arena of work. The film is filled with spaces belonging to men, just as Caught is. Instead of Ohlrig’s mansion, his garage, his warehouse, his car, or Quinada’s office, we see the New York Stock Exchange trading floor, Eugene’s lavish apartment, the police department and various offices inside it belonging to men. We see nothing of Megan’s living space except bars on her bed frame, a bit of her bed, and the floor of her bathroom. Space itself crowds out women. In fact, in Caught, one of the most harrowing scenes takes place in Quinada’s office—a conversation about Leonora between Quinada and his colleague, Hoffman. The two men discuss Leonora as the camera, endlessly mobile (which is what Ophuls is of course known for), sweeps back and forth between the two men over Leonora’s empty desk. The soundtrack, aside from dialogue, emphasizes the noise of Hoffman’s electric razor as he shaves while talking to Quinada. Throughout the film, Leonora is continuously shaved down to nothing, a cipher “castrated” by men. In Blue Steel, Turner is castrated at every “turn” of the plot. What she says goes unregistered by the men surrounding her; her image is constructed and re-constructed by her father, by Eugene, by her boss, by Nick. The ending of Blue Steel exactly mirrors the ending of Caught: after having endured it all, and after having triumphed over Eugene, a compendium of mental disorders figured threateningly throughout the history of American cinema, she is raised from her car, limp, like a dead baby, by the strong arms of a male police officer. Thus begins her “new life.”

For all their other wild, and beautifully constructed, elements, both Caught and Blue Steel situate themselves as “woman’s films.”

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About Therese

Feminist, film scholar, animal lover, licensed and bonded cat-sitter.
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6 Responses to Caught and Blue Steel

  1. Judd says:

    hey Therese,
    I find myself still thinking about Caught almost two weeks later. I really need to see it again; it frustrated me and felt like a stinker, but purposefully so. The Robin Wood essay’s suggestion that the ending was purposefully botched really resonated with me, as I felt Ophuls made these almost comically bad compressions of Leonora’s character and situation. But as much as i rolled my eyes (the simplistic montages,the truncated anti-tragic, but oh-so-tragic, ending), I also felt puzzled to be so empathically aloof (Leonora is a distant universe, only faintly understandable) but aesthetically/compositionally enthralled. I wondered if he was self-sabotaging his movie as a sort of rejection of the taut continuity style of Hollywood movies. But self-sabotage doesn’t seem to be Ophuls’ M.O. I can’t quite match your exuberance yet, as much as I sense the feminist/ironic leanings of the film, because it’s effect on me has been more of a festering dissonance than a cinematic “statement”. Anyhow, based on Caught and Le Plaisir, I feel that Ophuls has a darker, more sinister view of humanity and desire than the general portrait of him as a wistful aesthete suggests.

  2. Therese says:

    I don’t see him as a wistful aesthete, but as both ironic and exuberant, if that makes sense. My passion for his films has to do with exactly what you wrote above, about being compositionally and aesthetically enthralled. He delivers on the pleasure of film, that’s for sure. But I may be a bigger fan of the “woman’s film” than you are, too. I like melodrama a lot, and I am especially taken with the play of space and movement, and on the other side, the lack thereof, in Caught. A “botched ending” here means only that Ophuls had to make the ending happy, and so he did it in the best way he could while sticking to his story. I mean, this is what Sirk called a “fake happy ending,” which he too had to devise when working in Hollywood in the 40s and 50s. The things you mention that made you roll your eyes are things I love, which pertain to melodrama. Not everyone has a taste for that.

  3. Judd says:

    Ah, I thought “botched ending” sentence in the Wood piece had this weird syntax to suggest the producer was in on it (which I couldn’t understand). Your Sirk quote and reframing of the necessity of a happy ending makes it comprehensible. Yet, I still feel that it was abortive and jarring; the complete opposite of any type of happy ending. I too am susceptible to sentimental manipulation, leaving it at that I once shed tears over an airport reality television show. Mostly, my eye-rolling was a result of sensing that Ophuls was never earnest about the script’s intentions as a melodrama, as I understand it. Which might be a result of not actually having a good grip on melodrama in the first place. Any quick recommendations of an article or a paragon of Hollywood melodrama to give me a surer footing?

    • Therese says:

      I can suggest some books on melodrama but for now, here is a quote from Lutz Bacher on Ophuls’ Hollywood filming practice, which Bacher says gave Ophuls an education that he then used in his French films. Bacher calls the following evidence of the ways that Ophuls subverted the Hollywood system. He has less producer interference at Enterprise than he did at Universal, by the way, and he made Caught at Enterprise. The quote begins by referring to Ophuls’ use of the new electric crab dolly.

      “Though the crab dolly lends itself more readily to the precise articulation of expressive camera movements, Ophuls learned to use it in a fluid manner, taking advantage of its ability to pivot, the wheels curving in one direction, the camera on its pedestal panning in another, thus substituting for the jib arm’s motion. Recall the beginning of Leonora’s early morning confrontation with Smith for an example: as she stands in the foreground in long shot, her back towards us, the camera travels left to right, while panning in the opposite direction with Smith’s leftward crossing from extreme long shot to medium long shot. While her position in the frame remains the same, the camera appears to float as it pivots around her. The presence of Robert Parrish, a young editor who supported him, favored Ophuls’s practices. As a consequence, there are many scenes that integrate staging and editing devices, requiring Ophuls to stage action in certain ways in order to accommodate editing concepts, and, consequently, far fewer angle-reverse angle scenes.

      With Caught, there was virtually none of the kind of post-production chicanery that plagued the Universal films. Ophuls felt, nevertheless, that working quickly had made the essential difference in getting what he wanted. He wrote to the producer John Houseman: ‘This Hollywood crisis could be good for you…. this desperate cry for cheap production would make it possible for you to fool them, and before they realize it make good pictures. In the picture I just finished, I found out that that is possible.'”

      What you find abortive and jarring is intentional, and represents Ophuls’ negotiation with a Hollywood system that wanted edits and “rabbit shots” rather than long takes and angle-reverse angles (dollying around the axis of action).

      Two books on melodrama and film I have liked (though you might find them too academic, I don’t know) are an anthology of essays, edited by Christine Gledhill, Home is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman’s Film, and Mary Ann Doane’s The Desire to Desire, which looks at a ton of woman’s films from the 1940s in a feminist psychoanalytic context. These are both older books (from the 1980s and 90s), but they are classics.

  4. jules says:

    hey therese, just re-watched Caught. i agree with your take on it and just want to add my two observations (based on this viewing and one earlier one back in the 90s). first, the film never shows us any signs of the “love” that leonora insists was present during their courtship–we only see ohlrig as a complete bastard all the way through. but there’s an ellipsis between his therapy session and the scene of leonora with her friend at the estate after the marriage. are we meant to assume that she has fantasized that and thereby justified marrying a rich man, not for money but for some imagined true love? as he himself (or was it quinada?) accuses her of later? or that he did woo her in more kindly ways and we just for some reason didn’t get to see it?
    second, can i just say how FABULOUS that movie is for making a dead baby a happy ending!! hahahaha! that could NEVER happen now, maybe not even in an “indie.” you know i’m particularly grouchy about repro-obsession, so i found that ending HI-larious. i’m just dark that way, i guess.

    • Therese says:

      Hey, jules, that ellipsis is really interesting. My take on it isn’t that something changes in Ohlrig (if there’s any change, it’s that he just gets worse and worse), but that she really did marry him for money. I mean, in the beginning there’s that fly-swatter thing, which can be understood not just as foreshadowing the fact that she’s going to be trapped, but that she wants a rich man. So, I think she’s set up, at least partly, as a femme fatale. But there are the mitigating factors of her naivete and gullibility, as well as the fact that this is the dominant ideology, which her mother represents.

      The ending is interesting. It’s not the ending Ophuls wanted for the film, and he comments on this in the Wollen book in an interview. But it’s sufficiently scary, anyway, so that the happy ending thing is completely weirded by the fact that it’s predicated on losing the only thing that “belongs” to her, and that she desires, in terms of being ready to sacrifice her own happiness for. It makes Quinada’s statement all the more perverse, and makes him just as much of a bastard as Ohlrig. Well, I’m just saying these things here–I know they are pretty obvious!

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